THAILAND'S military is once again a controversial pivot in politics at home and in Southeast Asia.
Thailand votes this Sunday in the first parliamentary election since the military ousted an elected government in a bloodless coup last year. Thai generals are taking center stage in determining who rules, Thai and Western analysts say.
With the vote expected to be close and indecisive, the country's soldier-politicians hope to broker a coalition or appoint the next prime minister.
After months of avoiding politics, junta leader Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon said this week that he wants the top civilian political job. That has stirred protests because General Suchinda is not formally running for office.
But shifting party loyalties have thrust Gen. Chaovalit Yongchaiyuth, himself a former controversial armed forces chief, into the limelight as a surging rival. Whoever becomes the leader will have to fashion a deal with the military, observers say.
"More than ever, the military sees itself as the guardian of the state," says a Western military analyst. "This paternalistic view of society will be with Thailand for a long time."
"You have to admit that at times the voice of the majority is not always correct, because everyone is intent on protecting their own interests," Suchinda told the Bangkok Post recently. "Whatever we thought ... should be done for the benefit of the country ... we tried to do."
Sunday's election has evolved into a battle of personalities and a scramble to keep military authority intact. At one point, Suchinda seemed solidly positioned to take over civilian political power at the head of a three-party coalition created by paying politicians to switch parties. But military infighting has revived General Chaovalit's chances.
Public resentment over Suchinda's power play, along with Army suspicions of a fast-moving Air Force chief who hints at political aspirations, could make Suchinda delay political ambitions and compromise with Chaovalit.
The military says such posturing is part of its role as political arbiter. In predominantly rural Thailand, the military is widely respected for its authority.
Yet, increasingly, the generals are being challenged by a disapproving urban elite, outspoken intellectuals, regional politicians, and businessmen gaining clout from Thailand's economic boom.
"This uneven political development is affecting other national security pillars such as the economy, social psychology, and military stability," says junta spokesman Col. Banchorn Chawansin, who rejects criticisms that military interference itself undermines Thailand's political and economic stability.
"Thailand is too grown up to be disturbed by any minor interior problem," he says.
Among Thailand's neighbors, the Thai armed forces are also a closely watched political player.
On the border with Burma (now called Myanmar), the Thai Army confronts Rangoon troops besieging ethnic Karens and Burmese dissidents in the frontier rebel headquarters at Manerplaw.
Thailand and Burma have become friendly in recent years as companies controlled by high-ranking Thai military officers won lucrative timber, gem, and fishing concessions in Burma.
In return, Thailand has been silent while the regime in Rangoon has brutally suppressed its pro-democracy movement.
But this week, that relationship changed somewhat. After cornering the Karen in their Manerplaw hideout, Burmese troops struck Thailand in a move to encircle the ethnic guerrillas. The attacks were a diplomatic embarassment to Thailand, which only last week refused to join growing Southeast Asian criticism over Rangoon's repression of its Muslim minority in the west.
Thailand, which allowed Rangoon troops in the past to stage attacks from the Thai side of the border, repelled the Burmese and warned against further attacks.
Also under scrutiny is the Thai military's role in the planned return of 350,000 Cambodian refugees this year under a United Nations-sponsored peace accord.
In the past, Thailand funneled Chinese arms to Khmer Rouge rebels fighting a Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Thai Army officials looked the other way when the radical Marxist guerrillas forced thousands of refugees into primitive support-bases inside Cambodia.
Before the Cambodian peace settlement was signed in October, Thailand came under strong pressure to block a forced repatriation by the Khmer Rouge.
Eventually, Thai military commanders agreed to cooperate with the UN effort, observers say.
"Where the [Khmer Rouge] violated the peace agreement was in forcing the repatriation," says Lt. Gen. Sanan Kachornklam, who oversees the refugee repatriation for Thailand.
But given the free-wheeling style of many border commanders, "invariably you're going to have some miscommunication and people taking their own marching orders," a Western military analyst says.
Getting rich has long been a perquisite of border duty, analysts say. Border officers have profited from a booming trade with Cambodia, particularly gem-mining, which is largely controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
Even the Thais' land mine-clearing operation along a main highway in western Cambodia has an element of self-interest in facilitating Thai trade; its stated purpose is clearing the way for returning refugees.
"You won't stop the Thais from dealing with the Khmer Rouge," says an international aid official working at the border. "They will deal with anyone willing to deal with them."
Western and some Thai analysts contend that within the military, a core of professionals are unhappy with the generals' politicking, although concerns often dissolve as officers climb in rank.
"Among middle-level officers, they don't like the military involvement in politics, but they don't like the politicians either. It's a dilemma," says Kanala Sukhabanij-Khantaprab, a military analyst at Chulalongkorn University.
"The problem ... is that there are too many generals with nothing to do," a Western analyst says. "If they could eliminate cronyism and corruption, they would be a better army."